Beatrice Webb

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Martha Beatrice Webb, Baroness Passfield FBA (née Potter; 22 January 1858 – 30 April 1943), was an English sociologist, economist, socialist, labour historian and social reformer. It was Webb who coined the term collective bargaining. She was among the founders of the London School of Economics and played a crucial role in forming the Fabian Society. With her husband, Sidney, she formed a working partnership; the Webbs are often linked together.


  • Within a trade, in the absence of any Common Rule, competition between firms leads, as we have seen, to the adoption of practices by which the whole industry is deteriorated. The enforcement of a common minimum standard throughout the trade not only stops the degradation, but in every way conduces to industrial efficiency.
    • Industrial Democracy, Volume Two (1897), pp. 766-767
  • Within a community, too, in the absence of regulation, the competition between trades tends to the creation and persistence in certain occupations of conditions of employment injurious to the nation as a whole. The remedy is to extend the conception of the Common Rule from the trade to the whole community, and by prescribing a National Minimum, absolutely to prevent any industry being carried on under conditions detrimental to the public welfare.
    • Industrial Democracy, Volume Two (1897), p. 767
  • We shall never understand the Awakening of Women until we realise that it is not mere feminism. It is one of three simultaneous world-movements towards a more equal partnership among human beings in human affairs. ... [T]he movement for woman's emancipation is paralleled, on the one hand, by the International Movement of Labour—the banding together of the manual working classes to obtain their place in the sun and, on the other, by the unrest among subject-peoples struggling for freedom to develop their own peculiar civilisations.
    • Article in The New Statesman (1 November 1913), quoted in Patricia M. Lengermann and Jill Niebrugge-Brantley, The Women Founders: Sociology and Social Theory, 1830-1930 (1998), p. 294

Quotes about Webb[edit]

  • The world, they would say, was made up of "A's" and "B's" – anarchists and bureaucrats; and they were all on the side of the "B's".
    • G. D. H. Cole, 'Sidney Webb', Fabian Quarterly, Vol. 56 (winter 1947), p. 7
  • Their bureaucracy was never étatisme: it claimed much for the State, but much for the group also. Only the individual seemed somehow to get left out, or rather to be told to fit himself in, and not to fuss.
    • G. D. H. Cole, 'Sidney Webb', Fabian Quarterly, Vol. 56 (winter 1947), p. 7
  • Perhaps nothing illustrates better the diabolical character of the Stalinist regime than the 140-mile Belomor Canal, built at Stalin's instigation to link the Baltic Sea and the White Sea. Between September 1931 and August 1933, somewhere between 128,000 and 180,000 prisoners - most of them from Solovetsky, with Frenkel directing their efforts - hacked out a waterway, equipped only with the most primitive pick-axes, wheelbarrows and hatchets. So harsh were the conditions and so inadequate the tools that tens of thousands of them died in the process. This was hardly unforeseeable; for six months of the year the ground was frozen solid, while in many places the prisoners had to cut through solid granite. And, as so often, the net result was next to worthless economically: far too narrow and shallow to be navigable by substantial vessels. Yet when Shaw's fellow Fabians Sidney and Beatrice Webb were given a tour of the finished canal they were oblivious to all this. As they put it in their book Soviet Communism: A New Civilization? (1935), it was 'pleasant to think that the warmest appreciation was officially expressed of the success of the OGPU, not merely in performing a great engineering feat, but in achieving a triumph in human regeneration'.
    • Niall Ferguson, The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West (2006), pp. 208-209
  • The Webbs explicitly rejected the 'naive belief that. . . [Soviet] penal settlements are now maintained and continuously supplied with thousands of deported manual workers and technicians, deliberately for the purpose of making, out of this forced labour, a net pecuniary profit to add to the State revenue.' Such notions were simply 'incredible' to 'anyone acquainted with the economic results of the chain-gang, or of prison labour, in any country in the world'. Slavery always has its apologists, but seldom are they so ingenuous. The thirty-six Soviet writers who, under Gorky's direction, produced the hyperbolic book The Belomor-Baltic Canal Named for Stalin at least had the excuse that the alternative to lying might be dying. The Webbs wrote their rubbish in the safety of Bloomsbury.
    • Niall Ferguson, The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West (2006), p. 209
  • It is a mistake to believe that the Webbs' basic idea was State Socialism. It was in fact nothing less than the application of scientific thinking to politics. About this I had many arguments with Beatrice. Like Bernard Shaw, she totally lacked the strain of dissenting morality which is so strong an element in the British character and especially in the Labour Party. ... They were interested in the economic and political structure of society; they were disinterestedly, and I would even say passionately, desirous of social improvement and greater human happiness. Their watchwords...were "measurement and publicity". That is to say, they wanted to substitute quantitative for qualitative arguments, to find a solution and to subject it to criticism instead of gassing about justice and liberty. To avoid the danger of tyranny they agreed that there must be freedom of criticism and "public accountability" for all State action. But they were never really interested in liberty – that is to say, they did not recognize the intractable complexity of individuals. People must be placed in categories for the purposes of government, and if they did not fit, so much the worse.
    • Kingsley Martin, Editor: A Second Volume of Autobiography, 1931-45 (1968), p. 84
  • The only woman who appears regularly in the New Statesman in the early months is its co-founder Beatrice Webb. She is represented in her partnership with Sidney Webb and their solid 22-part series “What is Socialism?”, which dominates the first months of the magazine. Just one instalment of this series is devoted to, as they call it, "freedom for the woman". In its dogged lines, I find both what must have been most attractive and what may have been most alienating about feminism 100 years ago.
    What is attractive is the insistence on material emancipation. After centuries of mystification of the angel of the house, the Webbs are fiercely sure that there is, quite simply, a "loss of personal dignity and personal freedom . . . inherent in dependence on the caprice of another . . . The childbearing woman, like the wage earner, must be set free from economic subjection." Fifty years before Betty Frie­dan told American housewives the same thing, Beatrice Webb suggested to British housewives that economic dependence was not romantic.
    Elsewhere in her life and writing, Webb was often conflicted about feminism and the woman’s role beyond the home. Yet this is a straightforward message of material independence. Even now, we often see Daily Mail columnists bridling at the idea that being financially dependent involves any loss of personal freedom. What a call to arms this must have been 100 years ago.
  • Their first book, The Permanent Official, fills three plump volumes, and took them and their two secretaries upwards of four years to write. It is an amazingly good book, an enduring achievement. In a hundred directions the history and the administrative treatment of the public service was clarified for all time.

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